An Italian resident with family ties to Collingwood is warning local residents and all Canadians to stay in their homes and not to underestimate COVID-19.
Masina Abate is related to Kate Harcourt, of Collingwood, through marriage. Abate grew up in Arthur with Harcourt’s husband, Rob.
Harcourt said she’s been watching Abate’s updates on Facebook as the virus has spread through Italy.
Abate is now an English as a second language (ESL) teacher living in Piacenza, Italy. She’s been in various forms of lockdown since the coronavirus was identified in Italy.
“Reading her post on Facebook did definitely hit home and made us take things more seriously,” said Harcourt. “It got us up off the couch and out to pick up a few things. We also looked more thoroughly at what we can do to mitigate the impact it might have on us all here.”
Italy now has 17,660 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an infection rate second only to China. There have been 1,266 deaths and there are another 1,328 cases considered serious or critical. There have been 1,439 recoveries.
But it began with two cases in a small town of 16,000 people.
Abate is hoping Canadians learn from Italy’s mistakes and take self-isolation seriously right away.
“We first heard about the coronavirus happening in China, but no one took any notice of it as China is pretty far from Italy,” said Abate in an email to CollingwoodToday.
On Feb. 21, in Codogno, a town of about 16,000 people near Abate’s hometown of Piacenza, a man was officially diagnosed with COVID-19. It went misdiagnosed as pneumonia first.
The man had been to a dinner given by a friend who had recently been to China.
The man’s wife also tested positive.
Codogno was shut down, including all businesses, gyms, schools, churches, bars, and restaurants. No one could enter or leave the town.
Abate said some, though not all, closures extended to Piacenza then too.
“We were all shocked that they would take this drastic measure for two people being admitted to hospital,” said Abate.
Three days later, there were 30 confirmed cases in the area and one death.
The closures were extended for a week, and, Abate says, many Italians took the week off and went on holidays.
“I know of people who went to the seaside and the mountains,” she said. “We were alert, but we chose to ignore the danger.”
As the number of confirmed cases increased, people were told to stay in their homes, to stay one metre apart from each other, to wash their hands.
Abate said many young people seemed to disregard the warning and continued to meet socially with others. News reports suggested young adults were not getting infected and it was mostly the elderly who were dying.
Two weeks after the first case was confirmed in Italy, there were 500 people infected and 30 deaths.
Piacenza was officially a red zone. Gyms, churches, schools, discos, cinemas and theatres were closed to the public. Restaurants and bars could remain open.
Hospitals cancelled all appointments and remained open only for coronavirus cases and emergencies.
By week three the numbers “exploded,” said Abate.
A government plan to quarantine 10 million people in northern Italy leaked early.
“There was a mass exodus of people leaving these cities to return home to their parents and families in the south, an area which – up to this point had no confirmed coronavirus cases.”
The government has now cracked down on all travel. Residents may not leave their province without permission.
Residents are allowed to leave their homes, but under strict conditions, and they require individuals to fill out and carry a form issued by the government if they need to leave the house.
According to an English-language Italian news site, The Local, you may leave for an urgent, demonstrable work-related reason, in situations of need (food, medicine), health reasons (urgent doctor’s appointment), or to return home.
Police can stop anyone in the street to ask them for the form. Those not conforming to the quarantine restrictions face fines and/or jail time.
At the grocery store, only a few people are permitted inside at the same time. A loudspeaker reminds them to stay away from each other. Signs recommend shoppers wear plastic gloves while inside the store.
“Life stuck in your house all day is not easy, especially if you are used to going out and having an active life,” said Abate. “We don’t allow anyone in our house because we don’t know who they have been in contact with.”
She said she regularly hears and sees ambulances at neighbouring homes. Medical staff are in white coveralls, masks and goggles.
“It’s sort of like being in a movie, everything is so surreal,” she said.
Now, media reports no longer include the ages of those who die from the disease. Abate said people of all ages have been affected.
An acquaintance who was 59 died from the disease recently. He had no existing health conditions.
Hospitals are closed to visitors, so those who are hospitalized for the virus are there alone, whether they recover or die from it.
Abate said morgues are overflowing and funerals are simple and quick at the cemetery with immediate family only, and all of them standing apart from each other.
And yet, in Codogno, where it all began, there are no new cases in the last two days.
“The lockdown idea works if the people in the area take heed and stay home and do not socialize,” said Abate.
While Canada is not in a lockdown as Italy is now, the federal government has recommended no travel outside the country. The provincial government is recommending immediate suspension of all gatherings over 250 people.
In Collingwood, town-owned recreation facilities, as well as the museum and library, are closed.
Collingwood General and Marine Hospital's physician lead for infection control, Dr. Mark Quigg, said vigilance is important if Collingwood and Canada is going to minimize spread and death from the virus.
"What I really want to get across to people is hope," said Quigg in a YouTube interview. "The key thing is if we all pull together, if we work as a community and look after each other and we do the social distancing, we do the handwashing etcetera, we can save a lot of lives, prevent a lot of people from getting sick. We can keep our medical resources from being overwhelmed and, what I’m hoping, we can come through this like the South Koreans have, and other places that have done these kinds of things and have come through successfully."
For information on the symptoms and latest public health recommendations related to COVID-19, click here.